“I don’t know how to answer that,” Hepburn said. “So I’m just not going to.”
The struggles of this place — and of the Job Corps program as a whole — have come to illustrate two powerful legacies of the Great Society. The first is that the government has vastly expanded its ambition to improve individual lives.
Fifty years after Johnson laid out his ambitious agenda — which led to Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and many other programs — Washington now does far more in an effort to lift ordinary Americans above their troubles.
The second is that government often fails to fulfill those broad ambitions.
And we’ve gotten used to it.
Job Corps will cost about $1.7 billion this year, making it the most expensive single job-training program at the Labor Department. It has about 37,000 training slots for young people every year, just a fraction of the country’s unemployed and underemployed.
But, at last count, less than half of Job Corps students were able to finish their job training and then find a job in the field they were trained for. And in 2008, a comprehensive study found that Job Corps’ benefits to society did not outweigh its costs.
But Job Corps is still very popular in Washington, among lawmakers of both parties.
It is still considered a success — at least as “success” is defined now, after a hard and disappointing 50-year war on poverty.
“The question is, do they work at all? Are the students better off not going to the center [at all] than going there?” said Anand Vimalassery, who represents an association of contractors that run federal Job Corps centers. “My guess is that they’re still probably a little better off going there.”
‘A fresh start’
The Job Corps program has 125 centers across the country. The students come as volunteers, some recruited by an online ad campaign: “Every day is a fresh start at Job Corps.” To enroll, they must be from low-income families and at least 16 years old. More than half lack a high school diploma.
Once accepted, nearly all students live at a center rent-free. Most stay there between nine and 11 months. In addition to academic and vocational classes, students also learn how to write a résumé and how to interview with an employer.
It is an expensive way to get somebody a job.
Federal officials say Job Corps costs more than other job-training programs because it does more. Instead of just teaching someone to weld, or how to search Monster.com, Job Corps is reorienting entire lives — lives that otherwise might drift away from the world of work.
“We think it’s clearly money well spent,” said Portia Wu, who oversees job-training programs at the Labor Department. “It’s a lot cheaper than some of the alternatives, like our juvenile- or criminal-justice systems.”
That is an argument nearly unchanged since 1964, when President Johnson’s advisers proposed the Job Corps program. Other Great Society programs offered a safety net to catch poor families — expanded food-stamp benefits, health care through Medicaid. Job Corps was intended to be something more aggressive, a way to help young people so they would never need that safety net.
“They are new educational institutions, comparable in innovation to the land-grant colleges,” Johnson told Congress in March 1964. “Those who enter them will emerge better qualified to play a productive role in American society.”
Congress signed on. The result was a series of centers that were a little like trade school and a little like charm school. Some of them were set in the remote countryside, and they operated a little like a Depression-era civilian work camp.
It was a program for the poor, created by bureaucrats and academics who knew little about them.
In fact, when the first Job Corps center opened in rural Maryland in 1965, its leaders weren’t even sure what the first students would want when they arrived. Would they want cigarettes, the bureaucrats wondered, according to a Washington Post history of the program written in 1980, or would they want milk and cookies?
Were these men, who needed a trade? Or children, who needed a parent?